Friday, December 25, 2009

Afrika Bambaataa - Dark Matter Moving At The Speed Of Light (Original TC Review)

Best Price: $8.99

Tommy Boy Entertainment: Cat. # TB1601
Released 2004

Track List:
1. Got That Vibe featuring King Kamonzi (4:07)
2. Metal featuring Gary Numan & MC Chatterbox (4:58)
3. Dark Matter featuring King Kamonzi (3:55)
4. Take You Back (3:57)
5. Soul Makossa (5:02)
6. Just A Smoke featuring Mustafa Akbar (3:42)
7. 2137 featuring Alien Ness (3:50)
8. Almighty Ra featuring TC Izlam (5:13)
9. Touch & Go featuring Muriel Fowler (5:40)
10. Shake 'n' Pop Roll featuring Aghi Spirits (5:05)
11. Ain't Takin No Shhh (4:32)
12. Pick Up On This (4:39)
13. No Dope Fiends On The Floor (4:51)
14. Electro Salsa (1:21)
15. B More Shake (1:17)
16. Meet Me At The Party (3:46)
17. Sally featuring King Kamonzi (5:19)
18. Zulu Chant No. 5 (1:14)

(2010 Update:
Still too wordy, but definitely getting better. At least I wasn't nearly as dry as I used to be, managing to throw in recurring jokes in the bulk of reviews, should you be brave enough to sift through it all to find them.)

IN BRIEF: Zulu Nation keeps partying like it's 1980 and 2180.

Respect. It's a wonderful thing to have in the music industry, isn't it? Most bands, singers, and producers gain respect by pioneering a musical standard and sustaining or building upon it in the following years, a most difficult task as numerous happenstances may interfere (products of their time, creative blocks, fads that fade, etc.); one slip up might raise a few eyebrows and another could leave you forgotten for the rest of your career. However, if such musicians can maintain the respect they've earned, they create a dedicated following of fans who will support your artistic endeavors and win critical admiration from your peers.

One such man is Afrika Bambaataa, one of the groundbreaking artists who helped build a fledgling hip-hop scene into something larger. With his group of friends and followers, the Zulu Nation, hip hop and breakbeat music grew into prominence as the entire culture of turntablism, MCing, breakdancing, and graffiti art was cultivated by him and similar minded artists. Even if hip hop and breaks took radical paths away from each other and even mutated into something far removed from its original intents, Bambaataa's influence has never been forgotten and remains an important figure to this day, held with the utmost respect for his accomplishments.

Always one to defy convention, Afrika's sound quite often borrowed heavily from the futuristic sounds that early electronic music pioneers created. As such, he has never come across as dated, in fact light years ahead of your normal players. However, now that technology has allowed hip-hop producers to catch up, does the Godfather of Hip Hop still have what it takes to remain relevant?

Instead of trying to beat the new breed of rappers at their own games of beefing, battles, and one-upmanship, Bambaataa sticks to his strengths of inventive beats (featuring a whole slew of unique producers) and fun, positive lyrics.

Openers Got That Vibe and Metal gives us a taste of the eclecticism we can expect to hear on this release. Egyptian instruments and atmosphere dominate the former with simple breakbeats and bubbly bass rounding out the rest. King Kamonzi provides most of the verses while Bambaataa hangs out in the background with shout-out MCing to pump the listener up. It's a fun little ditty to start out with but the paranoid, new wave sounds of Metal leap out at you in stark contrast. A cover of a Gary Numan song (with Numan actually returning on vocals along with Bambaataa), the electro sounds of digital beats, sci-fi effects, and robotic voices is like leaping into the urban squalor of Bladerunner.

One would think going from ancient Egypt in one song to a choking, future metropolis in the next would throw this album's flow completely out of sync but it doesn't. Why? Because this is the Amen Ra of Universal Hip Hop Culture we are listening to here. This kind of willful, contrasting diversity is what we've come to expect from him. What kind of sound will he come up with next? What musical avenue will he take us from here? Of course, Bambaataa doesn't disappoint.

Title track Dark Matter returns us to the streets of the Bronx in the early 80s for its grooves, recalling some of the big funk band sounds (trumpets, early organs, and so on) getting thrown into hip hop beats. King Kamonzi again provides most of the verses of street knowledge while Bambaataa hangs back to get the crowd energized. But not to be outshined on his own album, the Founder of Zulu Nation gets a chance to take center stage in the even funkier Take You Back. He doesn't really do much more than give you crowd hyping chants and shout-outs to the nations of the world but, as always, they are filled with zest and sound great with filtered disco loops and wah guitars slapping about.

The Fort Knox Five have provided the production for most of these tracks so far (the Paul Daley produced Metal excluded) but Bambaataa taps Überzone to help do a cover of Soul Makossa. Mostly an instrumental affair with Bambaataa supplying a wide assortment of backing chants, Überzone's unique blend of digital breakbeats sounds incredible as splashes of guitar and saxophone fill out the rest -a top notch, energetic track all around.

Another funk-fuelled Fort Knox Five-produced party jam in Just A Smoke passes us by and we are plunged back into the future with a pair of electro tracks produced by Sharaz. 2137 provides a utopian outlook by way of self-education as rapped by Alien Ness through a filter effect while the Father of the Electro Funk Sound gives his usual support. Robotic chants of "Afrika Bambaataa" and "Zulu Nation" get thrown in for good measure as the digital bass and beats keep the funk going. Almighty Ra gets a little more paranoid with strangling string pads (most reminiscent of Planet Rock) and thicker breakbeats. Again, robotic chants add to the futuristic soundscapes while bass pulses penetrate the funky rhythms. Both tracks are certain to get the current generation of b-boys at parties busting out their most skilled moves; best to have a chiropractor handy.

Steven Boogie Brown gets to have a turn at providing Bambaataa with the musical backdrop for the next couple tracks. Leaving the future, Brown takes us into the sweaty clubs of the southern states for the setting. Touch & Go may start out sounding like a bit of typical diva freestyle (with Muriel Fowler giving her vocal chords a decent workout) but mid-way through, a filtered disco house loop interrupts the proceedings as Bambaataa joins the party. Soon enough, the beats are laid on thicker and Fowler really cuts loose as the Purveyor of Elaborate Headdresses urges her on enthusiastically. Touches of raw synths fill out the song at the end to finish off this slice of house.

In case all that soul sista’ style in Touch & Go was too much for the guys, Shake 'N' Pop Roll gives the boys a chance to get crunky with it. Droning sirens, breakbeats, and vigorous raps provided by Bambaataa and guest Aghi Spirits hit you hard and fierce, generating a good deal of wild energy for the guys on the floor to get rowdy with (yes, even us white folk).

From here, unfortunately, the grooves lose their steam. The next three tracks, while fun party tracks, just don't have the same kind of diversity the beats on the first half of this album contained. In contrast, they're quite boring and, unfortunately, Bambaataa's crowd hyping MCing doesn't do much to improve them. Even when he gets a little more innovative with content on No Dope Fiends On The Floor, the rhythms are so limp and repetitive, you could skip past it after hearing a mere forty-five seconds worth and not miss much. After these, however, you then have to sit through two interludes that are nothing more than brief drum loops (although B More Shake is a little better). Were these really necessary to include? I wouldn't even consider these battle tools.

At least Meet Me At The Party brings this album back up to speed, even if it's almost four tracks overdue. Another Überzone produced track, we are treated to a little slice of Zapp-influenced funk. Even the Grand Poobah of Funky Vox (okay, I made that one up) is more lyrically diverse than his usual fare here, singing verses and choruses rather than just hyping the crowd. The big question is why couldn't we have had this song five tracks ago instead of stumbling through a bunch of mediocre tunes? The flow of this album would have been far smoother.

Sally is a bit of an oddity. No party vibe here, my friends. Instead, we are given a story about a woman of less than reputable stock. With the grimy, simple beats lying underneath, it's not a very optimistic song, and is extremely stark in contrast to the overall feel of Dark Matter. Sure, there've been a few menacing sounding tracks thrown about such as Metal and Almighty Ra, but they still had an air of keenness to them. Sally is just depressing, which is the point I suppose, but I don't see how it relates to the rest of this album. I guess that's why it was lumped at the very end. Well, not the very end, really. Zulu Chant No. 5 is the last track but it's pretty much self-explanatory, that one.

In the end, you have yourself two-thirds of a great album. The post Shake 'N' Pop Roll string of tracks (Meet Me At The Party excluded) aren't nearly as good as the first half of Dark Matter, but they aren't flat out bad either. Perhaps if the arrangement of the tracks mixed them up a little more, there wouldn't be quite the apparent dip in quality.

Still, Bambaataa has proved (as if he really needed to) he can still provide the party vibe when called upon. The legacy remains intact.

Score: 7/10

Soul Makossa
Almighty Ra

Written by Sykonee. Originally published 2005 for TranceCritic.© All rights reserved.

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